By: Tom Magennis
In 2003, Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy exploded into theaters, shocking western audiences with its complex narrative, eye-wateringly brutal violence, and the kind of twist that snaps your brain in half like a fresh breadstick. Oldboy went down in the history books as a defining work of East-Asian Film, it’s untouchability only solidified by the absolute trainwreck that was the godawful American remake starring Josh Brolin. Which makes it all the more surprising that Park’s new film, The Handmaiden, completely blows Oldboy out of the water, and indeed does the same for every other film released in 2016. (I’d have probably said 2017, too, since that’s when it was released in the UK, but c’mon, Free Fire came out in 2017, and while Handmaiden is almost objectively the better film, Free Fire pushed my specific buttons so perfectly that I began to suspect Ben Wheatley could see into my soul.)
Based on the novel ‘Fingersmith’, by Sarah Waters, here transposed into 1930’s Korea, during the Japanese Occupation, The Handmaiden tells the story of Sookee, (Kim Tae-ri) a Korean Pickpocket, enlisted by the con-man ‘Count’ Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo) to help him seduce and elope with the wealthy heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee) by posing as her handmaiden. Fujiwara’s scheme, to secret Hideko to Japan and marry without the knowledge of her Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-Woong) only to have her committed to a mental asylum so he can claim her inheritance, is complicated when a romance begins to develop between Sookee and Hideko. This rather standard crime caper initially appears to be the entire plot of the movie, but it swiftly develops into an intensely thrilling and darkly unnerving noir story of betrayal, depravity, and true love, the growing realisation that all is not as it seems helped along by Park Chan-Wook’s absolute mastery of creating an atmosphere that subtly tells the viewer that something is deeply, deeply wrong.
To elaborate further on the plot would be to spoil some of the most flawlessly executed twists in the history of film, but I will comment on the nature of the plot itself, that it so perfectly unravels and overlaps with itself that it is able to tell a phenomenally complex story without leaving the viewer completely lost. Its almost three-hour runtime might feel a little long, but it is completely justified by the movie’s intrinsic three act structure, and I honestly lost myself so completely in the story that I barely noticed how much time had passed.
Everyone on screen puts in a frankly phenomenal performance, with special mention going to the two female leads. Kim Tae-Ri perfectly captures the conflict and deceit that lies implicit in the character of Sookee, while Kim Min-hee is spellbinding as the lonely, traumatised Lady Hideko. The dialogue, usually dampened in foreign films by the necessity of translation, is here uniformly outstanding, providing a combination of subtle wit, and grim foreboding, with many hidden future details of the plot concealed within the twisting conversations of the main characters.
It is worth mentioning the elephant in the room. The explicit erotic nature of the movie is a key component of its individual style, even if I worry that there is a certain audience that will (like at least one IMDb review I read,) focus almost entirely on the sex scenes that, while a core aspect of the film, are not its defining feature.
The cinematography is spectacular, Chung Chung-Hoon’s camera perfectly capturing the stunning landscapes in which our story is set, as well as adding to the general unsettling tone of the movie with perfectly executed shots that are just a tiny bit off, just a milliliter askew, building to the skin-crawling, uncanny feeling of the interior of Kouzuki’s manor. The above-mentioned sex scenes are tastefully shot, perfectly capturing the romance and emotion shared by the two characters rather than simply trying to titillate the viewer.
Basically everyone knew The Handmaiden was going to be great. It’s being adapted from a renowned book, by a director who specialises in this sort of material, starring a cast of exceptionally talented actors. But I don’t think anyone could have predicted just how phenomenal the end-product would truly be. Every frame of The Handmaiden is like a work of fine art, slowly developing a breathtakingly unpredictable story with expert craftsmanship. It’s one for the history books. A truly singular epic that only serves to confirm Park Chan-Wook as one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers. Get. It. In. Your. Damn. Eyes.
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